This American Prospect Article really made me think. Ferrer’s assertions about the way the media treated him, and about the influence of money on the race, resonated with my memory of the campaign. As I thought more about the money issue in particular, I began to wonder why it is legal for different sides of an election to have huge funding disparities. Ferrer puts it this way:
Ferrer’s case is this: Bloomberg’s astronomical spending, left unchecked by the failure of the civic elites to seriously criticize those record expenditures, helped create an atmosphere in which press coverage of Ferrer’s campaign was relentlessly, at times comically, unbalanced
Ferrer estimates that Bloomberg spent $85 million on the campaign. He goes on in the article to detail the ways in which his campaign was crippled and, finally, defeated by the Bloomberg machine. I remember all this because I live in New York City. I remember the Bloomberg advertisements that started running long before the election. I remember the sense of inevitability surrounding a Bloomberg victory. But in this article, Ferrer describes these events in a way that makes clear the larger whole: Bloomberg bought the election, and as the party that always loses the fundraising battle, Democrats should understand how this happened.
Ferrer mentions this specific result of the spending imbalance:
Bloomberg’s well-funded opposition research team was very successful in getting the press to question every assertion Ferrer made. The result, Ferrer says, is that his aides would insist on getting ironclad proof of everything he wanted to say, no matter how inconsequential
This obviously presents a huge problem for a campaign. The fact that it was an asymmetric problem creates a hugely unfair environment, one that springs directly from one side having more money than the other, and one that does not allow for a fair election. I remember the campaign. Bloomberg could pretty much say whatever he wanted, while Ferrer always ended up looking sheepish or silly. Now I know why: the press made him look that way. Indeed, Ferrer clarifies:
What happened was the Bloomberg campaign shoved a daily load of opposition tidbits down the throats of everyone in the press until it was coming out of their ears. My campaign had to be completely defensive–The story got told their way.
Bloomberg was able to purchase the high ground. Once there, he could count on the media playing within the lines of the narrative, which led to stories like the one Ferrer mentiones here:
Ferrer points to several examples of what he sees as unbalanced coverage. One he cites is a front-page New York Times piece headlined, “Clintons give Ferrer a hand while staying at arm’s length.” The piece, which reported that the Clintons were subtly distancing themselves from Ferrer’s floundering candidacy, infuriated some in Hillary’s camp who argued that she’d done far more for Ferrer than any other Dem. And Ferrer points out that not a single Ferrer adviser or supporter was quoted complaining about the Clintons’ supposed distance-keeping — either on or off the record.
I remember this news story well, and I was surprised at the Times. As Ferrer said, there didn’t seem to be any evidence to support the headline. The article neutralized what could have been an energizing moment for Ferrer. Similarly, when Bloomberg neutralized another moment, the media did not seem very curious:
the media refused to ask tough questions when Bloomberg issued a terror alert on the same day that a debate that he was skipping was scheduled to take place. The alert distracted the city from the mayor’s biggest campaign misstep, raising questions about its timing that Ferrer maintains should have been pursued more aggressively. “The press wouldn’t go there,” he says.
Remind you of anyone? I was offended by this Rovian tactic as well, and I was surprised that the news people didn’t seem too interested in rocking the boat.
Armando at Daily Kos has noted that race was a factor in this election, which is no doubt true, but this has never stuck as a comfortable explanation of the Bloomberg invincibility factor by itself. In the days before the vote there was a pervasive feeling that Bloomberg was going to trounce Ferrer. I don’t think this came from racism alone; rather, it came from money. Money used to create the playing field, and money used to manipulate it. How else to put it?
This comes as little surprise, although it does serve to tie together the various threads of the Ferrer campaign’s loss. For our nation, though, the relevant question is: Is this a good way to run an election? After all, when one side of the debate can’t even get past the starting line, it doesn’t seem to be offering much choice to the people.
Consider Bush vs. Kerry. Neither of them took federal financing for the first part of their campaign. Happily, Kerry had a lot of money, so Bush didn’t get a giant head start. But should a candidate have to be a multi-millionaire just to run?
Dollars have replaced votes in our nation. This is bad for us because the Republicans have more of it. Meanwhile, as Matt Yglesias noted over at TAPPED there is not that much money in politics generally, so business interests can invest a modest amount in political races and net huge gains. All bad and anti-democratic.
So why not a universal campaign finance system where all campaigns are given equal amounts by the government, and that’s it? The ideas can fight on equal footing. I know this proposal offends people who think of money as speech, but money is not speech. Speech is. If I support a candidate, I can volunteer, or I can talk her up to my friends. I’m tired of people being able to buy elections. Even though it helps us from time to time (ahem Corzine) it is a losing strategy for us in the long run.